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What is Energy Justice?

Rosebud Sioux Tribe feather ornament in front of commercial utility wind turbine at their Reservation in the USA. This project involved a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the first ever negotiated loan to a tribe from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service, and support from the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy and Distributed Generation, Inc. Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
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At its root, energy justice is centered on the recognition of the societal value of our individual and collective energy needs, and that the benefits and burdens of energy systems should be equitably distributed (Sovacool and Dworkin, 2014).

Various energy justice researchers have proposed frameworks to incorporate energy justice into decision-making. In the context of planning for a just transition to a low carbon and clean energy system, introducing an energy justice framework could help to overcome some existing energy inequities, while also avoiding the creation of new inequities in the process. The predominant framework (Jenkins et al., 2016) for assessing energy justice is:

  1. Distribution of an injustice (the what),
  2. Recognition of who is affected (the who), and
  3. Procedural strategies for remediation (the how to fix it).

Energy is pivotal to our existence and has a multitude of applications in daily life. Access to this important resource is not equitable, however, and could be further exacerbated in a clean energy system if not addressed in the transition process. Fuel poverty refers to the lack of access to affordable energy services (costing 10% or less of a household’s income). The lower income a household is, the more likely it is to become fuel poor, which has many negative health implications for household members. This is a widespread problem in the U.S. and around the world, with 31% of all U.S. homes reporting difficulty paying their monthly energy bills (EIA, 2015).

Energy efficiency building design and retrofits, distributed energy resources (DERs) deployment, energy efficient building code implementation, and improving home appliances energy standards are some of the most effective strategies to combat energy poverty worldwide. More efficient homes require a smaller income to maintain thermal comfort and other energy services. Unfortunately, the reverse is currently often true with poor households living in more inefficient houses. An equitable, low-carbon future therefore requires energy-efficiency improvements to be focused strongly on the poorest households (Boardman, 2012).

Access to clean and sustainable energy is an integral part of the mix of solutions that would enable us to curb the effects of climate change. However, when access to the most basic forms of energy are in question, it is not a surprise that access to clean energy technologies suffers a significant disparity. In a 2015 study, George Washington University reported that less than 5% of solar installations were associated with U.S. households with annual incomes less than $40,000 (GW Solar Institute). The study further states that families with low to medium annual incomes often do not own their roof, given that a large percentage of low-income families live in multi-family homes. It is thus very important to factor in these significant disparities when planning transformative changes to energy infrastructure, investment and planning modalities. Widespread access to clean and sustainable energy is vital to escape the impacts of climate change, and energy justice plays a crucial role in understanding and remedying inherent differences in the access and affordability of these important resources.